FBI's Expensive Sentinel Computer System Still Isn't Working, Despite Report

Rebecca Cook/Reuters

You can't find what you need most of the time, or you get junk you don't want, but other than that, the FBI's long troubled, half-billion-dollar Sentinel computerized file system is coming along just fine, says the Justice Department's watchdog.

Sentinel, successor to the FBI's antiquated Automatic Case Support System, or ACS, was supposed to be finished by the end of 2009 at a cost of $425 million. Plagued by mismanagement, cost overruns and technical glitches detailed in a series of reviews through the years, its budget has ballooned another $100 million, the new report says. Years after it was launched, FBI special agents and intelligence analysts sometimes still have to visit another field office to obtain a particularly big or sensitive file, sources say.

Yet, perhaps reflecting the bureau's can-do spirit, "the majority" of the 2,513 FBI employees surveyed (out of 35,000 who work for the bureau) say that, "Sentinel has had an overall positive impact on the FBI's operations, making the FBI better able to carry out its mission, and better able to share information," according to the report issued by Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz.

That upbeat summary would seem to be undermined by specific complaints FBI employees had with the system, detailed deeper in the new report.

Two years ago, the IG noted, the FBI insisted that Sentinel's search function worked just fine. "Yet we found that only 42 percent of the respondents to our survey who used Sentinel's search functionality often received the results they needed," the IG reported this week.

In particular, "Sentinel returned either too many search results for users to reasonably review orno results at all for a document the user knew existed," 23 employees added in a comment section. (Italics added.)

Stuff was missing from the new system, too, employees complained, "features that they believed are critical to their duties," such as "Sentinel's integration with other FBI information technology systems." Special Agents and their supervisors also "reported a significant decline in their level of satisfaction with the availability of technical and policy-related support after the deployment of Sentinel."

Considering all that, it comes as little surprise to learn that some FBI employees yearn for the good old days, computer-wise. Twenty of them added complaints to the survey questionnaire that "the search function in the Automated Case Support system (ACS), the FBI's prior case management system, was superior to the search function in Sentinel."

Four years ago, a previous inspector general suggested that maybe the FBI should give up on Sentinel. "Regardless of the new development approach, it is important to note that Sentinel's technical requirements are now 6 years old, and there have been significant advances in technology and changes to the FBI's work processes during that time," then-IG Glenn A. Fine reported in Oct. 2010. Fine, much reviled by FBI brass for his aggressive coverage of the bureau, said then that the FBI "needs to carefully reassess whether there are new, less costly ways of achieving the functionality described in Sentinel's original requirements."

The FBI rejected that advice.

Two common employee complaints in 2010 were not addressed in the new IG report. One was that "several users lost partially completed forms and hours of work while using Sentinel," because it lacked an auto-save capability. In addition, "users also found the lack of an integrated spell checker unacceptable because most current word processing software includes this feature," the IG said then.

The FBI pushed back hard against the 2010 report, caustically complaining that the IG had used outdated data for ts findings. In contrast, this week its response dodged the darts and focused on the positive. "We are pleased you found, 'The majority of FBI employees responding to our survey reported that Sentinel had an overall positive impact on the FBI's operations, making the FBI better able to carry out its mission, and better able to share information,'" Jeffrey Johnson, the bureau's chief of information technology engineering, echoed back to the IG. He also said he was pleased that "the majority of respondents also noted the 'positive impact' on the FBI's efficiency in several areas with the deployment of Sentinel."

A major system update is scheduled for October.

Jeff Stein writes SpyTalk from Washington, DC. He can be reached confidentially via spytalk[at]hushmail.com.